Astro City: Life in the Big City

(Includes issues 1-6 of Astro City Volume 1, published by Image in 1995)

In Dreams: A day in the life of the world’s premier super hero.

 

The Scoop: A newspaper editor reminisces about what could have been his first big story.

 

A Little Knowledge: A smalltime crook’s world is turned upside down when he discovers a super hero’s secret.

 

Safeguards: A woman must decide whether or not to leave behind her magical neighbourhood for the modern life of downtown Astro City.

 

Reconnaissance: An alien gets a feel for humanity while watching and evaluating the world’s super heroes.

 

Dinner at Eight: The world’s most famous hero and heroine take a night off to go on a date.

******

I don’t know if everyone’s going to want to look at each issue individually or address the trade as a whole, but here are some general questions I thought might be interesting to think about.

 

1. Which story did you enjoy most?

 

2. Is there anything gained (or lost) by reading the stories as part of a trade instead of in their original format?

 

3. Do you feel any of the stories would have worked better if Busiek had the “real” characters to play with?  Would any have been improved with more original characters?

 

4. Which characters are analogous to which other characters?

 

5. How much of the familiar elements in the stories are homage vs. world building?

 

6. In what way(s) is the world building done?

 

7. How many other characters are referenced in the background?  Of these references, how many stories will we actually see?

 

8. Could the Marvel and/or DC universes ever integrate this well?

 

9. Is Astro City a trend leader?  Is “reconstruction” an actual trend?

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I don’t think there was a bad story in this trade, I especially liked In Dreams and Reconnaissance, but ultimately, my favourite was Safeguards.  This was a fantastic story that touches on culture clashes, the immigrant experience, changing family arrangements, and re-evaluations while giving us a feel for Astro City as a whole and the neighbourhood of Shadow Hill in particular... not to mention telling a fully developed hero tale in the background.  I like the way the heroes and monsters are integrated naturally into the same story while also clearly contrasting each other.  The assembling of the Unholy Alliance, revealed to us in the everyday chatter, worked extremely well and the Hanged Man’s glance offered just the right touch of foreboding.  This tale felt rich and complete even though it only took one issue.  It even included a Winged Victory subplot, (that will be brought up again in Dinner at Eight).  Not bad for what are essentially background elements in a tale about a young woman taking tentative steps towards breaking away from her family and finding her own place in the world.  So, while I thought all the stories in this volume were worthy, this one’s my favourite.

I don’t know if everyone’s going to want to look at each issue individually or address the trade as a whole, but here are some general questions I thought might be interesting to think about.

My preference would be to talk about each story, if briefly.

1. Which story did you enjoy most?

Whichever one I was reading at the time.

2. Is there anything gained (or lost) by reading the stories as part of a trade instead of in their original format?

I think the choice to print the original covers in the back of the book changes the way you "enter" the story. This seems to be a choice they make in a lot of trades. Otherwise, I don't think there is a substantial difference, except when a story is continued. All these are done-in-one.

3. Do you feel any of the stories would have worked better if Busiek had the “real” characters to play with? Would any have been improved with more original characters?

I think using versions or homages to mainstream characters works well for these stories. The tone is different, but otherwise it's like Watchmen in that the reader needs no prior knowledge of the characters because there IS NO prior knowledge. If Busiek had used actual DC or Marvel characters everyone would have quibbled about how this character or that wasn't consistent with what they already knew. Also, this way he owns it.

4. Which characters are analogous to which other characters?

Some like the First Family are obvious. Jack-in-the-Box seems to be a composite Ditko character, a little bit Spider-Man and a little bit Creeper. I hope Busiek never explains the Hanged Man. It's nice to have a little mystery.

7. How many other characters are referenced in the background? Of these references, how many stories will we actually see?

I like the immersion technique. They talk about heroes and villains because the narrator and the characters are already aware of them. I didn't feel left out because all the other readers were in the same boat I was. I think Busiek has and will continue to tell stories about characters that have been referenced. I also think there are many that are just names and never will be seen.

2. Is there anything gained (or lost) by reading the stories as part of a trade instead of in their original format?

I never read the original issues of ASTRO CITY. I picked up this trade--over a decade ago--and then a few of the other trades. And that really changed my whole outlook for this current era of comics. After that I stopped buying a lot of individual issues of titles and became a trade-waiter.

For vintage comics, I would still prefer to have the original issue in hand, but modern comics work best in the trade format.

I am curious how the original issues differed from the trade collections, but not enough to buy the individual issues. I still trade wait on ASTRO CITY rather than buying the title as it comes out.

I feel like the trade gives a fuller experience--and more effort is put into trade collections, with extra features. Individual issues seem rather stingy on content.

1. Which story did you enjoy most?

 

I'd have to agree with Richard's statement Whichever one I was reading at the time. - which is a testement to how well-written each and every story here is.

 

You are probably right that the Safeguards story has the most hallmarks of good writing about it.  The mixing of a superhero -supervillains clash with a very personal story.  The way it uses the tropes and stock situations of a superhero tale to comment on aspects of life in the real world.  I'd say that, in the dangers inherent in living there, Shadow Hill reflects dangerous lower socio-economic neighbourhoods, as much as an archetypal emigrant ethnic ghetto.  Which makes me wonder what the 'dangers' that the main character faces outside the ghetto might really be a reference to? 

 

The main character faces trauma dealing with life in more mainstream neighbourhoods, but in the real world, the desirable parts of town generally aren't as dangerous as poor neighbourhoods in decline can be.  But the danger being equivalent is the reason Marta gives for retreating back to her parents’ neighbourhood.  So the Unholy Alliance and their attack on the main character must represent what outsiders find threatening or hard to deal with when they try to move out of their 'ghettos'.  Prejudice, perhaps?  Or how privilege works, unseen by those that benefit from it?

 

In any case, it's a fascinating story, with a lot of real feeling in it.  Not only have most of us been through something like this, but an episode like this in our lives tends to be character-defining.  The choices we make at this point often decide how our lives will go.  So Busiek gets points for writing a superhero parable about a very key moment in all our lives.

2. Is there anything gained (or lost) by reading the stories as part of a trade instead of in their original format?

 

The design of this trade paperback is very striking and pleasing to the eye, so there’s that.  It’s a beautiful book, with some kind of Atomic Age/Mad Man era thing going on at the design level.  I love the red lines that go around to the spine too!  Composition isn’t always Ross’ strong point.  Often his covers tend to be a hodgepodge of colours and shapes on the page that don’t really cohere.  This cover is unusually minimalist for him, and the white background is surprisingly under-used on other covers.  I suspect that this white cover is meant to contrast with the black cover of the later Confessor TPB.

 

For the most part, there aren’t many advantages to stories being released monthly as 22 page instalments.  Usually we say that a well-constructed story collected in a TPB is like a novel, but this TPB reads more like a clever set of short stories that tie into each other.  The closer in time between reading the various instalments, the more we can appreciate how inter-related they are.

 

I don’t know why they decided to put the issue covers at the back of the book, as they are all good, and they went to some effort to make them spoiler-free, but at least they had little whole-page drawings by some serious talents to separate the stories.  With some TPBs it’s impossible to know when one chapter ends and another begins.

 

This is a nice package, and I’d be very happy handing this to anyone unfamiliar with comics as an example of how good superhero comics can be.

3. Do you feel any of the stories would have worked better if Busiek had the “real” characters to play with?  Would any have been improved with more original characters?

 

Samaritan is close to Superman, but he’s not Superman.  The story would be completely different if it was Superman, because Superman has striven to have the healthy work-life balance that Samaritan doesn’t have.  The whole story is about how Samaritan has given up so much to alleviate his guilt over his part in the disappearance of his family and friends from the future.  He’s guilt-wracked and damaged, whereas Superman is a more rounded and relaxed and easier to warm to, because he allows himself time for friends and family.  Samaritan probably spends more time actually helping people and probably helps more people than Superman, but it’s at the cost of his humanity.  I don’t blame Superman at all for allowing himself time to have a life.  Everyone reading this sentence could do more to help their fellow human beings, instead of spending time reading the Captain’s discussion board J, but they are allowed their downtime, and probably do plenty in their work and lives as it is.  So I don’t see Superman any differently.  He does what he can while still being a human being with need to interact normally with people.  Samaritan is somehow diminished by how focused he is on helping people most of the time, to the detriment of the rest of his life.

 

Superman is just a wonderful character, and it’s often the case that when we look at ‘knock-offs’ of him, even ones that try to show us an improvement on him, they only serve to show us why Superman is just great as he is!  In different ways Superman, as he’s been written for most of his existence, is more modest and appreciative of the joys and pains of simple humanity than either Marvelman or the Samaritan, or Liefield’s Supreme or any of the other knock-offs.  (Captain Marvel may have had as much charm and humanity as Superman in his original form, but was completely lost and at sea in JSA and other DC comics that were published while Astro-City was on the shelves.)

 

And then it’s clear that Busiek has done more than just produce direct co-relations of Marvel and DC heroes.  They each have an original spark, even if they at first seem similar to heroes we know.  Crackerjack is too shallow and goofy to carry his own comic series, for instance, but works as part of Busiek’s project here.  And he seems to have a variety of disposable aliases, which is fairly unusual…

 

The Hangman is quite original, and is pulled more from horror than superhero tales, whilst acting as a supernatural protector like Doctor Strange.  That's a pretty interesting mixing and matching of ingredients.

How much of the familiar elements in the stories are homage vs. world building?

 

It’s all world-building.  A lot of the seemingly throwaway stuff in these comics turn out to be foreshadowing of later stories.  And it’s also all homage.  It’s clearly a love-letter to superhero comics, and to the best of what has gone before.  The archetypes for superhero stories aren’t quite infinite, so there are similarities to what has inspired these stories.

 

These are kind of ‘What-if’ stories.  What-if superhero comics could be made with as much care and internal consistency and artistic integrity as possible, where story developments could be followed up logically and organically, and the chopping and changing and lack of care that is part of the Big Two approach is minimised. 

 

In his Seven Soldiers of Victory, Morrison described Big Two comics universes as a ‘Beggar’s coat’.  It is made of bits and pieces sewn together, it doesn’t quite fit, has gaps and absences, and needs constant mending and patching.  It wasn’t conceived as one thing, with one purpose, or point.  Busiek was able to grab his moment to bring us a superhero universe that is, in contrast, a fairly well-designed cut-to-measure suit!

 

I’ll try to get back to your later questions over the next few days.

I'm not as long-winded err verbose uh wordy as Figs, ( photo tongue.gif) so I will run through the questions quickly.

1. Which story did you enjoy most?

I'll take the easy out, and say I can't choose my favorite. These are different enough from each other that it is like a story quilt. All part of the same large piece, but each one different.

2. Is there anything gained (or lost) by reading the stories as part of a trade instead of in their original format?

Not really either way. Outside of being able to enjoy all of the stories in one sitting if you want to, instead of waiting for the monthlies.

3. Do you feel any of the stories would have worked better if Busiek had the “real” characters to play with? 

No, simply because these stories wouldn't have been allowed to have been done with "real" characters, except in an Elseworlds type title. Those we have seen before anyways. Here it has been done better

Would any have been improved with more original characters?

Hard to say really, but I would imagine not.

4. Which characters are analogous to which other characters?

I think Richard nailed it with the characters presented here. I would say Crackerjack would be close to Spider-man. Silver Agent a mish-mash of Captain America and some other Kirby creation, he looks like a Kirby character to me. The Old Solider like Uncle Sam and the Phantom Stranger. If you apply yourself, you can probably do this with any character out there.

5. How much of the familiar elements in the stories are homage vs. world building?

Hmm, I think there is a nice obvious mix between the two. To me it was perfect that this was originally published by Homage Comics, and there are obvious homage's going on here. Yet, Busiek and company have put so much thought into the characters, and with the actual city itself. There is a ton of world building going on.

6. In what way(s) is the world building done?

It may sound simplistic, but from the ground up. They have a fully realized city going on, with distinctive neighborhoods. I don't think Busiek has all of the history mapped out, but he has done a lot of it done. At the very least it makes it seem like he does.

7. How many other characters are referenced in the background?  Of these references, how many stories will we actually see?

A bunch? Most of them? Take N-Forcer for instance, even Busiek said he would get a bigger spotlight at some point in time, and we see him maybe a handful of times in the trade.

8. Could the Marvel and/or DC universes ever integrate this well?

No, their universes are so big now with so many "voices" from the writers, to the editors, to the corporate overlords they can never mesh this well again. Back in the 90s DC used to have a yearly retreat to map out Superman for the next year. Sometimes the writers' individual stories married well together sometimes they didn't. That was just for one character.

9. Is Astro City a trend leader?  Is “reconstruction” an actual trend?

I think people over the years have used pieces of Busiek's "reconstruction". Even Busiek himself used elements of deconstruction in later stories, like the Dark Age which did seem like a story put together with the trade in mind, and seem overly long. I think Waid's current Daredevil, Johns' initial Green Lantern, and even Morrison's All-Star Superman definitely use the reconstruction approach in their work.

Good variety of questions Border Mutt.

On other thing I wanted to remember to bring up, before I forget. While I enjoy nods to the creators and people responsible for the Golden Age of comics and beyond. Here it began to become a distraction to me. When I last read this trade I didn't know much about comics history (I was a punk in my 20s what do you expect?). Here though there are so many, and I started actively looking for them it would take me out of the story. I think Busiek and Anderson crammed in just about every EC artist. There were many, many others as well. I guess they felt like they had to do that since they weren't sure if the series would go past this initial 6 issues.

I only had Issue 1 to reread, so I'm going to skip the detailed Q & A approach. As several other folks have mentioned, creating these character and their world from scratch gives the series a consistency that Marvel and DC couldn't possibly match. Not even the line-wide reboots have come close! I think of it as being like the bright twin to a story like Watchmen. There could have been more stories set in that world if Moore & Gibbons had wanted (I'm going to pretend that "Before Watchmen" never happened). What Busiek & Anderson did reminds me of James Robinson & Tony Harris' Starman and Mark Waid's Flash run. They present a somewhat "real world" version of superheroes, humanizing them without going for darkness and grit.

I agree with what Figs said about Samaritan. He's so driven that he has no time for a life outside of his super-powered persona: I like the trope of him constantly checking how long every action takes. 

Figserello said:

For the most part, there aren’t many advantages to stories being released monthly as 22 page installments.

I'm not sure I entirely agree with this statement.  Leaving aside any marketing benefits or expectation excitement created by the monthly cycle, and assuming it would be the case of reading the complete set of comics vs. the trade, I still think that certain comics can read better as comics than a trade.  If the comics aren't really one story, a badly put together trade can emphasize this.  If the comics contain obvious recaps, then reading them together can accentuate this as well, (although if you were reading them all at once, you'd probably experience this either way).  If you have a story that jumps around, (think convoluted crossover), it's often more natural to jump back and forth with the floppies.  Additionally, the feel of the product can have a nostalgic impact all its own, over and above the story or art.  Plus, some items, such as lettercols, can add to the experience and might not be reprinted in the trade, (although often trades have "extra features", you're still getting a tradeoff).  The one I find most interesting though, (and I'm not even sure in my own mind whether I think it's relatively important or completely inconsequential), is the one that Richard mentioned, you "enter" the story in a different way. 

Is there anything gained (or lost) by reading the stories as part of a trade instead of in their original format?

I think this particular trade is an extremely well put together package.  As Figs said, the design aesthetic is top notch, evoking an Atomic Age/retro vibe.  This is carried through even into the extra feature section where these elements are integrated into the presentation of the relatively standard character design extras.  (As an aside, I think it's interesting that the city is not only given its own character design section but the very first one.  Does this mean the city's the most important character?)  Kurt Busiek's introduction is definitely value added, not only stating a comics philosophy/trend but also giving us a lens through which to view the whole series.  This was a labour of love and you definitely don't feel let down reading this book.  

Like most people at this point, I've never read the original issues so I might be a little off base here, but I'm assuming they didn't have the character design extras or Kurt's introduction, although they probably had a letter page.  (BTW, does anyone know if the sketches that are interspersed with the covers were included in the original issues?)  For me, the letter page isn't really important.  The issues are done-in-ones, although they have enough references building as they go along that I find it adds to the experience to read them together, (still I can definitely see where Travis might find too many easter eggs intrusive), but the flow isn't interrupted by having to pick up the next comic.  So essentially, which is the better experience is determined by how much you like the extras and which is the superior entry point for each story.

My thinking is that the covers were put in the back of the trade rather than in front of the individual stories because they were done-in-ones.  By having a consistent opening page, it emphasizes the connections between the stories.  Also, it makes you enter the stories with fewer expectations, not focusing on a particular image or event, again making the connections more noticeable.  (Perhaps this even factors in to why a lot of people aren't finding a particular story jumping out at them as being their favourite... or, you know, I need to start taking the right meds. ;))  So, changing the "entry point" seems to me to have been a deliberate and considered decision.  Was this a good decision given the top notch covers Alex Ross designed for these issues?

As far as I'm concerned, I think this is a case where everything worked and the trade is a superior package, (and thankfully, we still get the covers, they just don't start the story).

 

 

Jimmm Kelly said:

I never read the original issues of ASTRO CITY. I picked up this trade--over a decade ago--and then a few of the other trades. And that really changed my whole outlook for this current era of comics. After that I stopped buying a lot of individual issues of titles and became a trade-waiter.

I'm curious Jimmm, what's your new outlook?

Figserello said:

For the most part, there aren’t many advantages to stories being released monthly as 22 page installments.

I'm not sure I entirely agree with this statement.  Leaving aside any marketing benefits or expectation excitement created by the monthly cycle, and assuming it would be the case of reading the complete set of comics vs. the trade, I still think that certain comics can read better as comics than a trade.  If the comics aren't really one story, a badly put together trade can emphasize this.  If the comics contain obvious recaps, then reading them together can accentuate this as well, (although if you were reading them all at once, you'd probably experience this either way).  If you have a story that jumps around, (think convoluted crossover), it's often more natural to jump back and forth with the floppies.  Additionally, the feel of the product can have a nostalgic impact all its own, over and above the story or art.  Plus, some items, such as lettercols, can add to the experience and might not be reprinted in the trade, (although often trades have "extra features", you're still getting a tradeoff).  The one I find most interesting though, (and I'm not even sure in my own mind whether I think it's relatively important or completely inconsequential), is the one that Richard mentioned, you "enter" the story in a different way.

In the long run, all things being considered, I've come to the conclusion that the monthly grind has been detrimental to superhero comics.  The marketing cycle produces more hype than great comics.  The sheer proliferation of duff comics month on month really hurt these characters and narratives in the long run.  There are only so many plots you can use these characters in and if you look, most of them have been used in naff comics already, or the characters have been rendered very problematic by backstories full of horrible writing/editorial decisions.  So that ties the hands of writers interested in producing something with a bit of quality.

And then the focus on the particular market for monthly comics has been largely detrimental.  These guys need their continuity itch scratched, so we get toons of comics just about other comics and utterly univiting for a wider audience, and they need their badass and awesome moments in each comic that keep accruing into an awful picture of awful people in an awful fictional world.

There are good runs of individual comics that each can be read individually to give a satisfying read.  A lot of Mantlo's work falls into this category.  But sooner or later, ambitious writers, like Busiek want to be able to stretch out and produce a  collection of chapters that add up to more than the sum of the parts, that depend on cross-references and thematic threads that can be followed when they are read together.

I remember the incomprehension and lack of engagement shown on this board at the issues of All-Star Superman as they came out.  The fact that they add up to a great read wouldn't have been noticed if they hadn't been collected, and they wouldn't exist, probably if Morrison and Quitely hadn't been aiming for them to be read in the collected form.  Recently, it was hailed by the Captain as the greatest Superman story ever, which is saying something, trumping some very fine comics work further down in the list.  Then when we discussed it in it's own thread everyone was lining up to say how good it was.  I'm sure there were plenty of great runs of comics that sank almost without trace in the past because they were subsequently lost in the deluge of monthly comics that were easier to appreciate on a single read.

Englehart's Batman run and Kirby's New Gods, off the top of my head.

I agree with everything you say about how monthly comics can be an experience in themselves and superior to the experience of reading a TPB.  There's nothing like the smell and feel of a Mantlo-scripted, Ditko drawn, single-issue Captain Universe story from 1979 as far as I'm concerned, but all-in-all, monthly comics and they way they nessecarily have to be produced have been a kind of rack on which superhero graphic narratives have been ...almost broken over the years.

There are countless examples of attempts at ambition and artistry in superhero comics being stymied by the demands of the monthly publishing model.  It's sad.

Luckily, Busiek was able to avail of a slightly improved model for his Astro-City series, ... and here we are!

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